If someone were to ask you, “where did feminism start?”, you would instantly think of the early 20th century Suffragettes. Though that’s not technically wrong, truth is, the seeds of feminism were sown way earlier—atleast, of Western feminism—with Mary Wollstonecraft. Her book, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman (The name’s a mouthful, I know, but I’m here to break it down for you!), published in 1792, is one of the first documented treatises on women’s rights.
Prolific writer, philosopher, women’s rights advocate, intellectual—Mary donned a wide variety of hats. Born in 1759 in London, and brought up by an abusive father, she left home and dedicated herself to a life of writing: an extremely unconventional choice to make, considering the time she was living in was hardly kind to women who thought independently (more on that later). She briefly worked as a governess, and in 1781, she made history by establishing a school (along with her best friend, Fanny) in Newington Green which admitted both men and women, studying alongside each other—a truly revolutionary feat. She advocated for equal rights way before it even became a topic of discussion, and laid down her various progressive ideas in The Vindication, which was published in 1792.
“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”
The Vindication has a seemingly simple goal: to explain how men and women are, ultimately, equal beings and deserve equal rights. This argument sounds almost basic now, at a time when the debate about equality and diversity has become common fare, but at the time Wollstonecraft was writing, the very suggestion was tremendously subversive. In the eighteenth century, the political, social, and economic spheres were dominated largely by men, and women were either relegated to the household, performing domestic tasks, or into (in most cases, involuntary) sex work. They were rarely admitted into educational institutions or professional jobs, and even when they were, they were hardly given any respect or proper remuneration. In such an intensely patriarchal society, women were only seen either as sexual objects, or as childbearers and childrearers. No wonder Wollstonecraft felt the need to write about women’s rights!
What’s brilliant about this book, is how so many of the things Wollstonecraft talked about way back in 1792 are still relevant today, and here’s how:
“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience.”
As we can see from the establishment of her own school, our Mary was pretty passionate about imparting education—and an equal, unbiased education, that too. A woman’s right to education, to equal access to educational institutions as men is something that she stresses constantly through the book. In fact, she devotes her entire Introduction to discussing the issue of women’s education in great detail, and links women’s subjugation to patriarchy to a lack of incisive education which would equip them to think independently and challenge their oppression. Due to a lack of education, women aren’t often aware that they are being undermined and silenced, and ultimately, lack the tools to “vindicate” their fundamental rights and freedoms.
Her idea of educational reform is a recurring one throughout the book, and in fact, the solution she offers for a better, equal world where women can finally get the rights they deserve, is to have free and equal education for both men and women (We forgive her for thinking in gender binaries, it being the eighteenth century and all). In fact, she even brings in parenthood, and talks about how better education will make women into better parents, who will be equipped to educate their children to challenge harmful social constructs. Again, it’s slightly problematic how she still puts the woman in the nurturing role, but I still sort of understand what she means. She also called for equal opportunities for women in male-dominated fields such as politics, science, trade, and so on; all concerns that still remain with us in our contemporary times.
“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”
Centuries before feminist critics like Judith Butler and Betty Friedan, Wollstonecraft called out the unhealthy standards of beauty and desirability patriarchy imposes on women, pointing out how women are required to dress up and look a certain way due to a deep-rooted harmful social conditioning. She talks about how, from a very young age, women are taught that their looks are of utmost concern, and that the only way to please others is to cultivate weakness and artificiality. She also brings marriage into the mix, talking about how the same harmful conditioning teaches women to remain in unhappy, and even abusive marriages, because they are taught to indulge the men in their lives, to depend on them, and to never question them. This kind of female dependence, which encourages women’s confinement in the domestic sphere and inability to participate in the public sphere is extremely unhealthy and has a deeply negative effect on female psychology. Wollstonecraft wants to change that, to help women question and break free from their oppression, and inspire a “revolution in female manners.”
“And this homage to women’s attractions has distorted their understanding to
such an extent that almost all the civilized women of the present century are anxious only to inspire love, when they ought to have the nobler aim of getting respect for their abilities and virtues.”
She further goes on to tackle important feminist issues such as sexual and body policing in chapters seven and eight, when she talks about the patriarchal notion of female “modesty”. A “modest” woman, in the eighteenth century sense, is she who conforms, who exhibits desire and autonomy only in the way patriarchy dictates them to—but Wollstonecraft is having none of this! She is highly critical of this kind of moral, sexual, and body policing, and says that if women are meant to be chaste, then men should be chaste too! But what’s really revolutionary for the time she was writing in, was Wollstonecraft’s urge for women to be financially independent and to participate in the public and political sphere. Like I mentioned earlier, these spheres were exclusively reserved for men at the time, and to talk about all this in 1792 required tremendous courage!
“They may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent.”
Often, the language she uses to talk about women’s subjection to patriarchy takes on the slave-master narrative, which is deeply problematic considering slavery was a big thing during the period, and British imperialism was at its peak, which means, a lot of women of colour all over the world were battling the dual subjugation of both patriarchy as well as actual, physical slavery and racism. By excluding their experiences, and focusing on mostly middle-class white women’s rights, she denies the existence of womanhoods that are different from her immediate social strata—which is kinda not cool. But again, we have to remember that this was the eighteenth century, and aeons before intersectionalism even being considered by feminist critics, so I guess we have to keep that in mind.
But she does make one good point—of involving men in the fight for equal rights. Once she has shown that women’s rights are perfectly rational and infact, extremely necessary, Wollstonecraft devotes her conclusion to urging men to come forward and advocate for equality, because without the help of both genders, true equality can’t be achieved. I give her brownie points for this initiative, even though her language is coated in racism.
Like mentioned earlier, Wollstonecraft apprehended so many different feminist issues before they even began being discussed properly, and that’s what makes this text so important and universally relevant. Before there were the suffragettes, before there were feminist slogans like “We Can Do It!’ and ‘The Personal is Political!’, there was good old Mary, dropping truth bombs and smashing the patriarchy like never before. Wollstonecraft more or less laid the foundation for Women’s Studies and Feminist theory as we know it today, and has become the starting point for studying Western feminism. Sadly, but predictably, her work received a lot of backlash from (you guessed it right) the straight white men in society, and people were more interested in how she ‘scandalously’ gave birth to two children out of wedlock. But that didn’t stop her legacy from becoming a lasting one, and her work went on to massively inspire the Suffragette movements in both Europe and the United States. So let’s raise a toast to good ol’ Mary, and not write her off as old news!